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is to make a caring, trustworthy, personal
connection to be built upon. Beware of
evangelising because of “Christian duty”,
it is said that "hur ting hear ts have no ears".
Care for the hurting heart first. Truth needs
the right timing.
can be a very
verbal way of saying
“I care”, or “You
are valued”. But
use touch carefully.
differences, and be wary
of touch in the male-female
10. Avoid your need to “help” unnecessarily.
By this, I mean don’t rob the person of
their independence, don’t do ever y thing
for them. Try to assist suffering people to
regain as much control or independence in
their situation as possible, even in the most
seemingly trivial of tasks. Suffer ing people
gener ally need to feel useful.
There is clearly much more that could
be said and written about how best to
respond to suffering. It is often a very
difficult and confronting job, especially
when our natural tendency is to be “doing”
something for someone. It may be helpful
to remember that our role in relieving
suffering, ultimately, is to nurture
and sustain the other from
brokenness, towards healing.
And, as we respond to suffering,
we become like a midwife,
present to and mindfully-aware
of the other as he/she journeys
from one experience of life to the
next: from anguish to peace, from fear to
love, and from death to new life.
Prof. John Kearsley FRACP FRANZCR
PhD is a Sydney-based senior cancer
specialist who has a major interest in
teaching communication skills, medical
student education, and whole person care.
He is currently training in pastoral care
RESPONDING TO THE
SUFFERING OF OTHERS
One of our most difficult and
confronting tasks as human beings is
to respond effectively to those who
are suffering. Sensitivity and gentleness
on our part may play a crucial role in
transforming brokenness and suffering
into wholeness and healing. Yet, despite
our sincere and best intentions to help,
inappropriate responses may sometimes
only make someone’s suffering wor se.
What is suffering?
Suffering is a universal experience and is
integral to living. While there are many
causes for suffering, the theme of loss
(in all its forms) seems to be a common
denominator. Each person experiences
loss in a different way. Suffering is
One of the best definitions of suffering
suggests that it is an unpleasant
experience which arises from
perceptions of impending destr uc tion
of an individual’s personhood.
Suffer ing continues until the threat of
disintegration has passed or the integrity
of the person is restored.
We know people are suffer ing by their
demeanor and by what they say. In
keeping with the definition, people will
often describe themselves as “broken”,
“shattered” or “fallen into pieces”. It is
impor tant to realise that suffering affects
the whole person. It makes no sense
to say that my arm, or leg, is suffering.
Suffer ing also challenges our par ticular
world view, and may throw into chaos
the very meaning and purpose of our
lives. Relief of suffering, therefore, will
often need a spiritual response. It is
also worth remembering that pain and
suffering are distinct conditions ; physical
pain may be present without a sense of
suffering, and vice versa.
Impor tant components in
responding positively to suffering:
1. Pray at all times that the Holy Spirit
will guide your motives, your thoughts,
your actions, and your words. Pray that
you will indeed have the mind of Jesus
during your meeting with the other. Only
Jesus changes people. You don’t .
2. Have some understanding of yourself
first. Have some idea of what makes
you tick, about your strengths and
your vulnerabilities, maybe even your
prejudices. What negative childhood
experiences and feelings might be
triggered when you talk to someone
who is sick or helpless, and suffering?
How might these feelings from long ago
influence what you say and do in the
present when you visit that per son ?
3. Do not at tempt to fix the suffer ing,
simply be present. Remember what the
suffering Jesus in Gethsemane asked of
His disciples : “Watch with me”. Not,
“Give me advice” or “Make me feel
better”. No, just, “Be there”. This can be
a most difficult step.
4. Be attentive: use deep and active
listening : aim to listen with your hear t,
as well as with your ear s. What is this
person feeling? Practise listening, not
only to what is being said, but also to
how it is said.
5. Avoid speaking unnecessar ily. Don’t
interrupt the other person. Get used to
sitting in silence, waiting upon the other.
Allow the per son to vent how they feel.
Listen with curiosity to the stories that
people need to tell you; allow them to
lament, “bleed the per son of lament”.
6. Be prepared to hear many
unanswerable questions, especially “Why
has this happened?”. Your role will be to
sit in the pain, with the other. When the
unanswerable questions come, respond
to the questioner, not the question.
People who suffer do not need a lecture
or a philosophical disser tation, they need
empathy. After ever y unanswerable
question, ask your self, “What is the
feeling behind that question ; how is this
per son feeling? ”. Is it anger, grief, sadness,
rejection, helplessness, or something
7. Respond with empathic statements
that let the other know that you sense
how the other is feeling. Let the other
know that you are a witness to their
plight. It will mean a lot for the other
to know that someone is listening.
Statements such as “I imagine this
must be overwhelming for you” can be
powerful in encouraging more lament.
8. Beware of having your own agenda.
Don’t meet the other with a certain
outcome in sight. Meet them where
they are, just as Jesus did. Importantly,
as a Christian, do not be too ready
(at least initially) to pray, or to read
scripture, unless you are responding to
a need, implied or otherwise. Your role
We are called to connect with others; to be an agent of compassionate care
and healing, despite our own brokenness.
as well as
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